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Sips: Get a Craft Cocktail History at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale

September 3rd, 2011 · 2 Comments

By Jim Hayward, guest columnist


A craft cocktail movement is shaking up the bar and restaurant scenes in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Fresh and local ingredients, in-house mixes and syrups, and flamboyantly garnished concoctions are taking center stage.

Sadly, that scene is hit and miss in South Florida. But wait: Cocktails that meet all those criteria – and more – have been perfected and lovingly served for 55 years at the family owned and operated Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.

Unfairly dismissed as a tourist trap by some, this iconic Polynesian palace is widely considered to have perhaps the best tropical drink menu anywhere in the world, surpassing even the trendiest new tiki lounges in London and L.A.

Mai-Kai a research haven

Mixologists from all of the aforementioned cities make pilgrimages to the Mai-Kai to taste cocktails that seem frozen in time, most of them still prepared exactly as they were in the 1950s. The kitschy, yet authentic South Seas decor only adds to the enjoyment as you sip perfection from a pineapple.

But what completes the allure for me are the stories. Almost every cocktail has a story, and the Mai-Kai has around 50 great ones. One of our favorites is the Mai Tai.

Mai Tai defines a tropical, tiki drink

Mai Tai

The Mai Tai has been recognized for more than 50 years as the definitive tropical drink. You’ll get some arguments from Zombie fans like myself, but there’s no denying that the Mai Tai is one of the world’s most popular and distinctive cocktails, period.

Much has been written about how to make an “authentic” Mai Tai, as created by Trader Vic, circa 1944. Tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has a very concise history lesson and recipe on his blog. As Mr. Berry points out, the argument over who really invented the drink persists to this day.

Around 1937, a budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventured south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla was surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.

The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared by the 1980s, but the brand was recently revived with a Huntington Beach, Calif., location.

Originally a Q.B. Cooler?

One of the drinks on Donn Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as Beachbum Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as the Mai Tai.

As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau event at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients. The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.

The Mai-Kai tie-in

Bergeron eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. But I subscribe to Beachbum Berry’s theory that Trader Vic created the Mai Tai based on the Q.B. Cooler. Also on early Don the Beachcomber menus was a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle, but it was retired around 1937. Could Vic have lifted the name from one drink and the flavor profile from another in creating his Mai Tai?

Perhaps, but what does this all have to do with The Mai-Kai? The restaurant’s founders, Bob and Jack Thornton, were also fans of Don the Beachcomber. And they hired away one of Donn’s longtime mixologists, Mariano Licudine, from his Chicago restaurant.

Licudine created The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu using his vast knowledge of the secret Donn Beach recipes, most of which remain a mystery to this day. He slightly altered ingredients and changed the names of the drinks. Thus, Donn’s influential Q.B. Cooler became the K.O Cooler. If you’re looking for the taste of an authentic Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, I’d recommend you order The Mai-Kai’s K.O. Cooler (or the lesser known Bora Bora).

The Mai Tai served at The Mai-Kai is one of many variations created in the wake of the success of the original drink. You’ll find some good examples from mid-century Tiki restaurants in Beachbum Berry’s cocktail guides, such as the Bali Hai Mai Tai, Damon’s Mai Tai, Kon-Tiki Mai Tai and Surf Room Mai Tai. You’ll find bad examples at hundreds of bars across the country.

Mystery as to when it made the menu

We’ve seen 1957, 1958 and 1959 Mai-Kai cocktail menus, and none contains the Mai Tai. It was most likely added in the 1960s due to customer demand as the drink’s popularity reached its zenith. But it seems more like an original creation by Licudine than a spinoff of the Donn the Beachcomber or Trader Vic classics. It’s more sweet than sour, with a familiar Mai-Kai rum profile, a distinct pineapple flavor, and a hint of falernum.

Regardless of its origin, the Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai is one of the iconic tiki bar’s most popular drinks and has become a classic in its own right.

You can follow my journey through 52 Mai-Kai cocktails on my blog, The Atomic Grog. We’re posting weekly reviews, photos and lots of recipes you can try at home (including the Q.B. Cooler).

* * *

      Jim “Hurricane” Hayward, a longtime South Florida journalist with a penchant for Polynesian Pop, recently launched TheAtomicGrog.com to cover the Tiki/retro revival, including South Florida events, music, art, cocktails and culture.

Tags: Sips: Drinkables

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 not a douche // Oct 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Let’s start by taking a look at the Mixology Movement, First it was originally called the “Modern Mixology Trend”, after realizing what trends actually are, they quickly changed the name to movement. These people who claim to be bartenders have actually spent a majority of their career in the kitchen, away from interaction with the guest. The have no idea what real bartending is all about. I can say this for certain, anyone who has spent 15 years or more in this industry would never turn their back on the people who keep them employed. Never in my entire professional career have I met anyone who follows this trend who has been really bartending for 15 years or more, not once. These “chefs” claim they’ve been bartending 20 years, but if they had they would never do these things crafties are doing.

    First, real bartenders know that it is illegal to make your own unapproved bitters and enjoy their occupation so they abide by federal and state liquor laws.

    Real bartenders also know that it is illegal to transfer liquor into spray bottles and eye droppers. Look at what is happening in Los Angelos, ATF has started to crack down on these places. If I was vengeful I report every single craft bar to the authorities and encourage others to do the same, however, karma is good and they will get what’s coming to them.

    They look up to people who blatantly lie about cocktail history like like Gods. I guess they are not as individual and creative as they thought, because if they were they would have looked into these drinks themselves.

    They follow books like “Jerry Thomas” like his books are the end all be all. Many, Many drinks were created several hundred years before he was even alive, So the only drinks he was the “first” to print were his own “speciality cocktails”. But they don’t know that.

    They make sours with egg white, unpastuerized at that, like it was the first sour, not realizing the sour exist atleast a century before thomas wrote his first book. He did not make the first cocktail book. Even famous writers like Charles Dickens wrote dictionary of thames, a guideline to drinks separating drinks by families in 1855, shows how much literature they actually read.

    They are against things like Vodka, Peach Schnapps, Blue Curacao, Amaretto, neglecting unassuming patrons of their drinks because they have personal bias against these liquors. Not realizing Vodka is the number one spirit in america and has been since 1971. Vodka is not going anywhere.

    They claim to be about classic drinks but do every else but classic. They use vermouth like it’s a base spirit, seriously. Heaven forbid you should ask for a stinger or any other real classic drink, they’d have no clue, even though I make them on a regular basis at an over a century old bar. Then they all start blogs and bitch about having snobbish guest like they didn’t create that problem. And have the balls to say things like “guest don’t know what is classic or not” I can’t believe it! They are the ones that have no idea which drinks are real or not! Because they have no experience.

    They order classic liquors like strega, and chartruese, and 17 different vermouths, but instead of finding out what these drinks were used in, they just make up drinks, As if it were some kind of skill! It is far more difficult to create a drink that taste bad if properly portioned than one that taste good! Even the guest with no real knowledge of drinks can do this, and they do this at home, as should you mixology trend people.

    They find one recipe in one vintage book and think it’s a classic, as if that’s what constitutes a classic drink. And when you call them out on their false cocktail history, they respond “well if someone is more concerned about making drinks, then this isn’t the industry for them”. Wait a minute? I thought you guys were all about “crafting” 10 minute cocktails? Who are the ones more concerned about drinks?

    They line their bar with new age bitters, then bitch when someone orders a drink using all of them. These chefs don’t realize that even if you make the best drinks in the world, and even if you know all the correct history of every drink, you are only being a small part of what a bartender is. A real bartender spends about 10-15% of their shift making drinks, and the other 85-90% entertaining their guest.

    What do crafties do? Ridicule and try to poke fun at people that do flair or magic and even hold a great conversation with their guest. They seriously have no clue, although there is hope. Recently, PKNY was shut down for making a copyrighted drink incorrectly, using their own illegal bitters i’m sure. California is cracking down on these craft bar for making spirits and selling them illegally. Mindy Kucan, or whatever her name is from Anvil (a craft bar in Houston) recently left anvil along with other crafties after business was so bad and took on another job at another craft bar, so you run one bar into the ground to go run another into the ground? These crafties call themselves consultants, but what they really are is death squads. Jon Taffer is the only real consultant, all others are jokes. If you want to close your doors to your bar, hire one of these clowns and you’ll get your wish. And there is a new “Against Mixology” movement going on right now, which emphasizes that these mustached, vest wearing, chefs, are just rude and snobby. Snickering at anyone who wants a drink they like. So what if they like dirty martinis, amaretto sours, cosmos, and apple martinis, who are these crafties to deny them a drink?

    What is sad is, they know their “made up, fairy tale” drinks are horrible filled with vermouth, and people would never order them if they had a choice. But they have no choice because these craft bars do not stock any thing to make any real drinks, as if they would even know how to make half the tried and true calls. They are forcing people to order off thier “speciality” menu. If these crafties were so good at what they do then why do you have to not stock drinks you know people want to order? I think everyone can see that these guys are not bartenders and should never be perceived as such.

    What is really ironic, us real bartenders are laughing at their lack of experience, knowledge, and skill and will not welcome them with open arms when this trend is over. I will put together a list of “craft bars” and “bartenders” so we can easily identify the people who were part of this trend and make sure they don’t try to be double agents when this trend ends.

  • 2 Hurricane Hayward // Oct 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Just to clarify, the above comment really has nothing to do with what I wrote and should not reflect on any of the drinks or practices at The Mai-Kai.

    Grumpy Gus may have a point or two, but it’s way off topic. I mentioned craft cocktails only as a way to introduce the great, historic drinks that have been served at The Mai-Kai for the past 55 years.

    Most actually originated as far back as the 1930s and have nothing to do with the latest fad. That was the whole point.

    It’s probably better to save our rants about bartending for another forum.

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